MANILA, Philippines – For the Department of Health (DOH), the globally feared Influenza A(H1N1) virus could not have come at a worse time than in the middle of the year – the same time cases of dengue, another “medical emergency,” usually reach their peak.
As early as late April – around the same time the flu virus began spreading outside Mexico – Philippine health officials scrambled to address the emerging crisis.
Immediately, the government laid down preventive measures to ensure that the virus won’t reach Philippine shores: from installing thermal scanners to preparing stocks of anti-viral drugs, even going as far as banning pork importation.
With the discovery of the first confirmed A(H1N1) case in late May, the DOH had never been busier. It set out on a complex and meticulous process of tracing every single person who had contact with an infected patient – part of what it called “containment process.”
Now that the rainy season has arrived, the Philippines faces the problem of containing not just the spread of the A(H1N1) virus but also the dengue virus.
“This is really a challenge for us because we are faced with a double burden,” Dr. Eric Tayag, chief epidemiologist of the DOH, told GMANews.TV on Tuesday.
Tayag, however, assured that the department was “still on top of the situation.”
He said the fact that the government’s anti-dengue campaign “has long been institutionalized” made things easier for the DOH. Given that dengue cases are always expected to rise during the rainy season, the DOH makes it a point to intensify information drives at this time of the year.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also made the same assurance, saying his department could juggle between handling cases of A(H1N1) and the long-time problems posed by dengue.
“Ang dengue, dapat talaga mas-bantayan ngayon because this is a medical emergency [We really have to keep watch of the dengue cases because this is a medical emergency],” the Health secretary said in a radio interview.
Duque said unlike the mutant flu virus, the effects of the dengue virus could not be eased or eliminated by any vaccine or drug.
Focus on dengue
In a separate interview with GMANews.TV, Dr. Antonietta Inumerable echoed the DOH officials’ observation on the twin health problems and stressed that although both the flu and dengue viruses raise major health concerns, the DOH should focus more on the latter.
“If given the preference, the dengue cases should be given more priority because if left unattended, the result could really be severe,” said Inumerable, who is head of the Quezon City health department.
Inumerable’s suggestion would seem sound if figures were solely to be used as basis.
From January to May, 275 dengue cases were recorded in Quezon City alone. Although the figure is a 58-percent drop from that of the same period last year, more people died this year.
Nine people succumbed to dengue around the same period last year, while 14 died since the start of 2009.
In contrast, the Quezon City government has not recorded any confirmed cases of A(H1N1) infection, despite being home to almost three million people. No one from the city had ever been included in the DOH’s contact tracing.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are about 50 million cases of dengue infection worldwide every year, and the disease is epidemic in more than 100 countries.
In contrast, 73 countries have officially reported 25,288 cases of influenza A(H1N1) infection, including 139 deaths.
But Tayag explained that as far as the national government is concerned, it is not taking any preference between attending to A(H1N1) and dengue cases, saying “both are equally important.”
The chief epidemiologist said attention should not veer away from dengue because it has long been established that the virus when left unaddressed could claim many lives. But also, focus should be given to the A(H1N1) virus because – though having a low one-percent fatality rate – it remains shrouded in mystery.
“The virus is still unknown and unpredictable. Kung baga sa pagkain, tinitimpla pa natin siya [We are still testing the waters],” Tayag said.
Inumerable said she does not mind if the DOH appears to be “overreacting” on the flu scare.
“At least, our preparedness is being tested. Although the A(H1N1) scare seems overblown, we are already assured that we can handle the situation if ever things worsen,” the chief city health official said.
She said that arrival of the flu scare in the country had not affected the city health department’s operations one single bit. “We are not suffering. We are actually integrating all the activities and the information campaign,” she said.
The dengue and the A(H1N1) virus can both be prevented through proper hygiene, she said. Cleaning the surrounding would ward off mosquitoes that carry the dengue virus, while thorough washing of your hands would lessen the chances of contracting the flu virus.
Inumerable said that this year’s anti-dengue information drive through lectures were no longer limited to households and schools, but have also spanned city and village halls. - GMANews.TV